Years before my father worked at the mill he worked in the woods. His first job was with an A.N.D. Company woods contractor in 1921 when he was a mere boy, 12 years old. He worked as a cookee, that is, a cook’s helper. One of his chores was to bring lunch to the men working the log drive along the Exploits River. He was up before daylight and worked until dark. He often went to bed wet and woke up wet. He saw no joy in the work to make him sing about it.
I, and other boys of Gilbert Street did not join the workforce at age 12. For us, the River, as we called it, was an entirely different experience. It was all fun and adventure as we explored, fished, swam, threw rocks, nugs, and logs in the River in an area that stretched from a few miles below the mill to beyond the golf course at a spot called Boom Landing. Nug, is probably the only mill word found in The Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Logs, too long for the mill’s pulpwood grinding stones, were shortened, the sawn-off junk, a nug, was often discarded into the River.
Fish caught below the mill weren’t fit to eat because of the mill waste and raw sewage. Good fish were caught above the mill or in ponds on the other side of the River. With no bridge, you crossed by boat just below Sanger Park. Our departure spot was thought to be a sandbar, but in reality was mostly bark flushed from mill and caught up along the shore line. Out in the River the current was swift and the water dark and murky - a bit scary for me, a non-swimmer at the time.
In the winter we went down to the River to skate and play hockey. The River always had open water midway out and logs were often frozen in the ice. Plus, you had to go down the River’s bank. Thus, the nearby French Pond, now the sewage treatment area, was a more popular spot. While we had lots of fun around the River we knew it could be dangerous and deadly. Two boys of my era drowned in the River and several moose hunters drowned up near Badger.
The River has shown its awesome power with floods at Bishop’s Falls, the Salmon Ladder, Red Cliff, the golf course and the Badger freeze up. The River rose quite dramatically in Igor’s wake. Would the River have gone on another rampage if Igor struck here like it struck Random Island?
The Beothucks lived here for centuries, but never abused the River like we have in our short 105 years. The River of my boyhood was an awful sight with industrial waste and raw sewage fouling the waterway. As well, the mill and town dumps on the River’s edge with industrial waste, burning garbage, vehicle wrecks, old washers, tires and whatnot gave the River another beating. If all that abuse had continued to this day, surely it would have dampened our spirits.
But thankfully the River’s health has improved. That change happened due to more stringent federal laws, the work of Exploits River Management Association, and treating industrial and human waste. With regards to sewage, Grand Falls-Windsor only has partial treatment and Bishop’s Falls is now working towards treatment which means there is unfinished work yet to be done. Our town dump was moved away from the River bank to a spot across the highway from Beothuck Park. That awful sight and mess is now abandoned. But you have to wonder if it has any contaminants leaching into the River? And are we to assume that the former mill dump sites across the River, now expropriated properties, will be investigated?
For various reasons, it’s a pity we stopped using the River as our water supply. If we were still drinking it, we would be more concerned about any goings-on up the River be it mining or the handling of sewage in Badger, Millertown and Buchans. The Duck Pond mine is a fantastic boost to our economy, but its tailings will be there long after the mine closes. Hopefully, we will never regret that waste the way the people in Buchans came to regret their glory days of mining.